We had an interesting overlap this year at TIFF: we saw both Jackie, which follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the moments and days following JFK’s assassination, and we saw LBJ, which follows Lyndon Baines Johnson as he inherits the White House following JFK’s assassination. Both movies have actors portraying Jackie, John, Bobby, Lyndon, and Ladybird, and both movies have value.
Jackie will of course be an awards contender; LBJ was more of a wild card. It’s by director Rob Reiner, a venerable talent who hasn’t directed anything of note in a couple of decades. As he introduced this film to the TIFF audience, however, it was clear that this movie really meant something to him. He talked of being a young man during LBJ’s time in office, and hating him because he was the man who could send you to your death in Vietnam. Only with time, age, and political engagement could he look back at Johnson as something more. He was the president who had to shoulder the burden and responsibility of John Kennedy’s legacy. He took over lots of the civil rights work that JFK had begun, and LBJ is the one who pushed it through, though history sometimes forgets to give him credit for this.
You may be surprised to hear that Woody Harrelson plays LBJ, underneath a not inconsiderable amount of makeup and prosthetics. Jennifer Jason Leigh steps in as Ladybird, in a career move that I can only imagine is a little depressing to a 1980s babe. It may not be intuitive casting, but it is inspired – it makes them come alive, not just as historical figures but as real, flesh and blood people, in a way I haven’t seen before. Rob Reiner’s position is also that Lyndon was a very funny man, and the unexpected joy of LBJ is how much you’ll chuckle watching it.
It’s a safe movie though, a conventional one that won’t speak to audiences or to history the way Jackie does. That said, I still found it to be quite enjoyable. The film neglects to give us a complete picture of the man, but does focus interestingly on LBJ’s rivalry with JFK, allowing Harrelson to swing between cockiness and shame and a whole presidential gamut in between – it’s refreshing to watch him flexing so readily after a string of second-banana performances. He’s playful bordering on hammy, showing us wit, vulgarity, searing intelligence, and frustrated ambition.
One of my favourite scenes occurs between Harrelson’s LBJ and a nasty Richard Jenkins as Senator Russell as LBJ haltingly tries to explain the importance of civil rights to a bigoted southern senator while his black maid serves them dinner. So while this is in fact a clichéd biopic of “an important man”, it’s also got little touches and details that make the ride worth it. Rob Reiner is no stranger to political dramas and isn’t afraid to show us that even the most idealistic of political agendas necessitate some manipulative, under the table handling.
LBJ is Reiner’s best work in years, and Harrelson’s too. It doesn’t soar to the great heights of Jackie but it does make an interesting companion piece to it. What the heck – see them both.